Learning Liberty

Take a breather: rest isn't just for the weary.  That's the enduring message of this week's double portion ending the Book of Leviticus (Behar-Bechutotai, Lev. 25:1-27:34).  

In our ancestors' society, spiritual truth translated from agricultural means.  Our ancestors worked the land, planting and reaping harvests, so often they expressed spiritual truths in terms of the land.  To them, Shabbat was more than a weekly day of rest: it was a principle of ethics and good stewardship of the land.  Even the land, they knew, needs a Shabbat.  Their land-Shabbat came every seven years – the Shmitta year of letting the land lay fallow, recharge and gather back its strength, so that it can continue to remain productive.  To make a land-Shabbat work, the people had to rely on what they had reaped the prior six years, which led them to be not only good agriculturists but also good economists: they had to save, mindful in the other six years that the land would have its Shabbat.

In our day, we might save for retirement or save for rainy days, but few of us save for sabbatical years.  Few of us take sabbatical years.  In today's fast-paced economy, even the rare person whose job entitles him or her to take sabbaticals rarely does so.

And yet, this system on which modern society mostly turned its back is the root of what we call "liberty."  In our ancestors' sense, "liberty" is what happens when we have a Jubilee Year – the year marking every seventh cycle of seven years (the 50th year), when land ownership reverted back and debts were cancelled.  From this system of Shmitta and Jubilee derived our understanding of not only good land stewardship but also fairness and justice – indeed, our very understanding of liberty itself.  From this system comes the quote on the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia: "Proclaim liberty throughout all the land for all its inhabitants" (Lev. 25:10).

Liberty, we learn, is tied to the land, to fairness and justice, to letting the earth have her due.  We need only observe today's geopolitical disruptions arising from environmental injustice, global climate change making water and food unstable for vast swaths of the world, to appreciate the subtle wisdom of our agricultural ancestors.

How we work the land – how we tend the earth, how we care for the planet – is essential to our lived spirituality.  Our planet has the capacity to produce enough food for a hungry world, but only if we tend it wisely – honoring the planet's cycles of time, water and air.  Honoring the God-spark among all the people means shifting from unfettered production to wise stewardship.  It means taking a breather: as partners with God, this is our responsibility and our spiritual calling.

The Jewish Studio/JoHanna Potts, Rabbi David Evan Markus